What should we make of them in the 21st Century?
IT IS the Christmas season, and the heat of debate subsides for a time – the hard-headed clashes over politics, war, science, fashion and society. In the extended dark of these winter-solstice nights, believers tilt an ear to new possibilities. The twitchy, overscheduled marketplace of real life yields way to the annual advent of other news – the Nativity story, the details of gospel wonder – arriving perhaps on angels’ wings.
At such a time long ago, angels flooded the sky with sight and sound and news of Jesus’ birth. The shepherds in the field beheld it and told whomever would hear and believe.
We do not hear much about angels the rest of the year. The pulpits do not ring with angel sermons. Experts acknowledge popular confusion about these famously bodiless spiritual beings, these invisible spirits. What should we make of them in the 21st Century?
Clergy might feel caught in the middle. Are angels merely the faded imagery of an ancient pre-scientific worldview? Are they irrelevant to our post-everything digital world? Or are they alive and well and ministering to us as much as ever, a spiritual counterweight to the techno-buzz of a new millennium?
“If you take the scientific worldview seriously, it’s hard to find a place for angels in that,” says the Rev Frank Gulley, a retired United Methodist scholar at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Most pastors probably don’t reflect much about it, or are afraid about it, or are afraid to deal with it as an issue.”
Yet many lay people are deeply intrigued by angels. For more than a decade, angels have been a media phenomenon. Book publishing discovered a flowing river of angel belief below the surface of official culture, a flourishing folk religion of claims of angelic rescue and reassurance. Sophy Burnham’s A Book of Angels launched the latter-day fascination in 1990.
Since then, in TV paranormal documentaries and best-selling stories, angels come across as helpful heavenly neighbours, posing as strangers who fix your flat tyre on a winter night or whisper a well-timed reminder to fasten your seat belt. They stir a gentle wind of emotional uplift or, sometimes, save you from disaster. But the warm, cuddly angels of culture pose a theological difficulty: They are frankly at odds with those we find in the Scriptures.
In the Bible, angels are often fearsome creatures who deliver history-altering news and leave human routine and expectations in ruins.
In the Bible, angels show up only periodically, mysteriously, but their role and meaning are clear. They are divine messengers, bringing wondrous tidings of God’s will. They appear sometimes in human form, other times as heavenly beings. They execute the divine plan, praise God and minister to God’s people.
They play a blazing role, of course, ‘In the Bible, angels are often fearsome creatures who deliver history-altering news and leave human routine and expectations in ruins.’
in the story of Jesus’ birth, heralding the news to Mary, then later to the shepherds. But angels were busy as far back as the book of Genesis, delivering scarcely believable news to Abraham and Sarah that they would soon be parents despite their advanced years (Genesis 18).
Other details emerge from the Scriptures. There are hordes of angels. They sang at the foundations of the world. They serve in the heavenly court and possess remarkable powers of discerning good and evil. They make up the legions of the army of Yahweh. Usually they are not named, but three of them are: Raphael, Gabriel and Michael.
Sometimes angels have grim assignments. In the book of Exodus, the “angel of death” manifested God’s power by striking down the first-born of Egypt before the Hebrews made their escape.
The mighty six-winged seraphims, guarding the throne of God, are considered one of the nine orders of angels, according to some commentators. So are their counterparts, the cherubim.
The New Testament carries the world of angels forward, with yet more detail. They surround Jesus in His time of need. They protect children; notions of guardian angels and ranks of angels surface more fully. Jesus intimates that angels do not marry. And another army of angels makes the scene, the fallen angels, those beings who defy the sovereignty of God; chief among them is Satan.
Do angels have wings? The stained-glass imagery of church says so.
Yet, pondering the Old Testament imagery of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10) some readers speculate that angels “climbed” their way between heaven and earth in early biblical history. Wings as a form of transport, were possibly a Persian detail added later in religious art, says The Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions.
For centuries, Catholicism has taught the existence of angels with gusto, naming churches and schools after them. Protestantism, departing from Catholic theology since the 16th Century, has generally stepped back from much angelic speculation.
Wesley and the Angels
John Wesley, though, was not bashful about preaching about angels. He devoted a trio of sermons to the nature of good angels, bad angels and guardian angels, based on his reading of the scriptural evidence. Wesley was awed by their holiness, wisdom, strength and dramatic history.
“By divine revelation we are informed that they were all created holy and happy,” he declared.
“Yet they did not all continue as they were created. Some kept, but some left, their first estate. The former of these are now good angels; the latter, evil angels.” Wesley agreed with other philosophers that the “great chain of being” – the chain of God’s creation that links plants, animals and humans to the reaches of heaven – would surely have an awful gap in it if no heavenly angelic beings were between mere people and the Almighty.
Methodism, in any case, had a hand in giving angels an unofficial Christmas theme song – “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” one of the great popular carols.
Charles Wesley supplied the original words, though not the famous first line we know today. The learned Wesley’s original line was “Hark, how all the welkin rings.” (Welkin meant sky or firmament.) Various successors in hymnody had other ideas, changing the line to what we sing today.
One pastor says he is happy to preach about angels, whether at Advent or August, whenever the week’s Scripture reading marks their earthly missions.
“The stuff I see about angels in the popular press doesn’t echo what I read in the Scriptures,” says the Rev Michael Williams of Blakemore Church in Nashville.
“Angels were pretty fearsome in the Bible, usually telling people, ‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid,’ then announcing news no one expected to hear.”
The Rev Williams notes two kinds of angel encounters in the Scriptures – the supernatural, awesome sort, and the heavenly messenger in human guise. The latter especially intrigues him. Abraham encountered such strangers bringing news of Sarah’s pregnancy. Abraham responded to their visit with courtesy and awe. The Rev William sees a lesson there.
“In such stories, an angel is not recognisably different from a human being,” he says. “This means we have to be open to the possibility that any stranger that comes to you could be a messenger of God. That’s been my experience. Lots of people, in that sense, have been angels to me.” – INTERPRETER, the official programme magazine of The United Methodist Church.
Ray Waddle is the former Religion Editor of The Tennessean, in Nashville, Tennessee.